The Wall Street Journal
February 17, 2012
By JOHN JURGENSEN
Hollywood veteran Brian Robbins has a new production studio under construction and 35 shows in development. There’s a sitcom set in a high-school bathroom, a talk show modeled on “The View” but hosted by young Twitter celebrities and a series about an outlandish teen wrestling league.
Mr. Robbins, a producer and director known for Eddie Murphy movies and TV shows including “Smallville,” plans to produce 120 hours of teen programming this year, all of it destined exclusively for the Web. “We consider ourselves a network,” he says.
Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street JournalTaking a Meeting With Dad: Twin skateboarders Pierce Brunner (left) and Christopher Brunner (right), with their father, Stephen, discuss a possible action sports show at the Santa Monica office of Awesomeness TV.
Mr. Robbins is part of a teeming new ecosystem, as some of Hollywood’s biggest names—with support from Silicon Valley’s deepest pockets—are racing to create new shows, and in some cases, dozens of them, for the Web. A former NBC programming chief is launching three YouTube channels in the coming months. The creator of the CBS juggernaut “CSI” is filming a series of YouTube thrillers. Stars like Tom Hanks and Kevin Spacey are at work on new shows for Yahoo and Netflix.
For veterans of movie studios and TV networks, the Web beckons as a creative playground, unhindered by studio control and the threat of swift cancellation. Show creators often own the content they create for the Web, which means they’re free to spin off their concepts later for movies or traditional TV shows—and could stand to gain a bigger share of the profits if a project takes off. Perhaps most importantly, no one wants to be left behind in a shift that could represent the future of television.
Jeff Huang (photo illustration); Clockwise from top left: Getty Images; Bedrocket Media/Network A; Netflix; Scotch Films; Reuters; iStockphoto; Aaron Epstein/BlackBoxTV; Everett Collection; Associated Press
Google, which owns YouTube, is paying an array of producers, from seasoned pros like Mr. Robbins to self-made Web stars, to create 100 new video “channels.” Google is giving each channel up to $5 million in funding, according to people familiar with the deals. The first channels began launching last month, and more will continue rolling out through the summer.
Hulu this week premiered its first scripted series, “Battleground,” about staffers backing an uphill Senate campaign in Wisconsin; it will be followed by an off-kilter travel show from “Dazed and Confused” director Richard Linklater. For the spring, Yahoo is developing “Electric City,” an animated series about a dystopian society of the future, co-produced by Mr. Hanks, who will also voice a character. Yahoo is already rolling out about 20 original shows each month, mostly short-form reality shows.
Yahoo’s programming choices are often driven by data, says Ross Levinsohn, the company’s executive vice president of the Americas. After tracking the torrent of clicks that news stories about wedding engagements routinely get, Yahoo commissioned “The Ultimate Proposal.” In each episode of the reality show, which Yahoo says has attracted 11 million total views since its premiere last October, a host “helps single people from all across America step up, take a knee and deliver the marriage proposal of a lifetime.”
Netflix is trying to lure monthly subscribers and brand itself as a home for boutique programs—as HBO once did—with series such as “Lilyhammer.” An offbeat drama about an American mobster (Steven Van Zandt) abroad in Norway, it launched earlier this month. Coming next to Netflix: “House of Cards,” a drama produced by David Fincher and starring Mr. Spacey as an ambitious politician, and a revival of the cult TV comedy “Arrested Development.”
Despite the influx of big-name talent, it’s always hard to predict what will catch fire online—a homemade video of a precocious pet or amateur singer can command the kind of viewer numbers that network executives only dream of. As a result, some of the TV veterans crossing into the Web are forming partnerships with self-made Web stars, hoping to leverage their expertise and fan bases.
Aaron Epstein/BlackBoxTVActor Goran Visnjic films a scene for ‘Execution Style,’ a thriller for the BlackBoxTV YouTube channel.
Some have already grappled with the reality that Hollywood cachet doesn’t always equal online stardom. Kiefer Sutherland, the “24″ star, played a guilt-wracked assassin in an online serial called “The Confession” last spring. Its producers, the Digital Broadcasting Group, wouldn’t disclose viewership figures but deemed the series a success based on its popularity on Hulu and in foreign countries, where it’s been distributed; they say they’ll soon break even on the project. But Mr. Sutherland has expressed some ambivalence about the reception it got. “The Internet is kind of when you want it, how you want it, and trying to really corral an audience was what we found to be the most difficult,” he said recently.
With his Electus studio, Ben Silverman, the former co-chair of NBC Entertainment, is still partially planted in the television business. An Electus-created reality show called “Fashion Star” premieres next month on NBC, and the Starz network recently bought a period drama about Marco Polo from the studio. But Electus, which is part of Barry Diller’s IAC, is also launching three YouTube channels in the coming months. For one devoted to Hispanic entertainment, Mr. Silverman teamed up with Latin World Entertainment, a marketing and talent agency whose client, “Modern Family” star Sofia Vergara, will appear on the channel. To run a food channel, Mr. Silverman recently hired a former top-ranking Food Network and Cooking Channel producer, Bruce Seidel.
Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street JournalBrian Bedol, CEO of Bedrocket, is creating four YouTube channels.
Mr. Silverman said deals like Google’s Hollywood partnerships are eroding the “mutual distrust” that has long existed between the industries. Previously “there was a sense that the 300 miles that separates Silicon Valley and Los Angeles might as well have been 10,000 miles.”
YouTube hopes that official channels offering a steady flow of content and consistent quality will compel advertisers to spend more than they would on typical YouTube fare. In addition to the familiar pre-roll advertising that runs before a video, YouTube’s team is pursuing channel sponsorships and deals to create Web shows around products. Channel creators will receive a majority cut of any advertising revenue, but only after Google recoups its investment in the channel.
Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Hulu and other major media companies will present their new shows to advertisers in an April event similar to television’s traditional “upfront,” The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
At the Los Angeles Center Studios recently, a hulking facility where shows like “Mad Men” are shot, “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker peered into a video monitor as actor Bill Bellamy cocked a rifle and took aim over a rooftop ledge. Also on the shooting schedule: several fight scenes, part of a 12-minute stand-alone thriller titled “Execution Style,” about a showdown between competing hit men. The video’s roughly $50,000 budget was minuscule by TV standards, yet extravagant for most Web producers. Mr. Zuiker plans to produce 12 such short films this year. They’ll be posted to the YouTube channel BlackBoxTV and interspersed with shorter, lower-budget sci-fi and horror clips.
Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street JournalStaffers at Awesomeness TV watch an online video.
Mr. Zuiker had huge success with “CSI,” but at times he has felt thwarted by the traditional TV system. He developed roughly 10 series concepts after “CSI,” he said, but none made it to air. “I’m not mad at TV, because it’s been incredibly good to me. But I could be frustrated that [networks] don’t take more chances.”
YouTube greenlighted his pitch for BlackBoxTV and keeps tabs on his production schedule, but the company doesn’t get involved with story lines or other creative matters. Mr. Zuiker appreciates this hands-off approach; he’s also hoping for long-term payoffs from the channel as a “testing ground.” Because Google doesn’t own the videos on BlackBoxTV, Mr. Zuiker’s team is free to spin them off as concepts for TV shows, movies or even comic books. (In recent years, TV networks have generally tried to fill their schedules with more shows they own.)
Lexi Alexander, the director of “Execution Style,” who said she forfeited part of her fee to hire a specialty camera operator, joined the project to keep pace with an industry changing fast. “I don’t want to be one of those dinosaurs who talk about [Web video] like people used to talk about cable TV,” said Ms. Alexander, whose credits include an Elijah Wood movie titled “Green Street Hooligans.” To prepare for the job, she visited a high school to quiz teens about their online viewing habits, she said. Her main question: What makes them click away from a video in midstream? “One 15-year-old said, ‘When they go blah, blah, blah.’”
Seeking an advantage with this audience, Mr. Zuiker teamed up with Tony Valenzuela. A former creative director, Mr. Valenzuela, 39, first created BlackBoxTV in 2010 as an outlet his pulpy homemade videos. Shot for less than $1,000 each, his horror shorts with titles like “Final Exit” got upward of 600,000 views each, earning him a cult following that Mr. Zuiker hopes to leverage. In April, YouTube launches their new version of BlackBoxTV, co-created with the Collective, a production company and management firm that represents Mr. Valenzuela and 30 other Web stars.
The channel creators coming from broadcast and cable television relish the fact that their YouTube work won’t live or die on traditional Nielsen ratings. On television “everything has to be a home run,” said Mr. Robbins, whose YouTube channel, launching in April, is called Awesomeness TV. “We don’t have to be in the home-run business, we just have to give our little piece of the pie what they want.”
The Web channels will be measured by a more direct set of data, including the view counter displayed under every video on YouTube. Each channel also displays a “subscribers” figure, the number of viewers who click a button to be notified by email when new videos go up. (The Wall Street Journal launched a dedicated YouTube channel this month.)
YouTube is gathering metrics on the channels’ prospects before they even launch, said Robert Kyncl, Google’s global head of content. YouTube managers score each channel on factors such as long-term marketing plans and cross-promotion planned with other channels. These status reports are color-coded on a sort of spreadsheet. Looking at green, yellow and red flags on this “heat map,” Mr. Kyncl can track signs of trouble—literal red flags—across all 100 channels. If a channel fails to attract viewers, those color grades could eventually indicate when it’s time for YouTube to pull its support. “Once it’s all green and it’s still not working, then sometimes it’s just that the idea was not good. There will be cases like that,” Mr. Kyncl said.
Most of the new channels are still ramping up, and there’s an atmosphere of freshman year about the effort, including workshops organized by YouTube where the channel partners hatch marketing strategies together. “There’s a very cool, cooperative vibe. That’s something you never felt in the cable business,” said Brian Bedol, whose resume includes the launch of the Classic Sports Network, a cable property he later sold to ESPN, and College Sports Television, sold to CBS.
Mr. Bedol’s new company, Bedrocket, is creating separate YouTube channels based around comedy, food and soccer. Huffington Post co-founder Kenneth Lerer is a Bedrocket investor, as is Nancy Tellem, former CBS network president.
One Bedrocket channel devoted to action sports, NetworkA, went live last month. For some content, the channel hires production crews to shoot skateboarders, surfers and other athletes on location, but many of the athletes shoot video on their own. Some athletes receive a share of potential advertising revenue, while others might get money upfront to cover travel to a shooting destination—or compensation might come in the form of a camera upgrade.
Mr. Bedol noted that savvy young athletes don’t need any help from NetworkA to make videos for YouTube. “They aren’t looking to a company like ours to say, ‘Hey, can you skate off that railing one more time and then let’s do another take with the sun in the background.’” Instead, they want Mr. Bedol’s company to expand their audience by handling the behind-the-scenes work of marketing the videos.
Looming over each new channel is the question of how to attract the YouTube audience in its countless iterations. Mr. Kyncl said his team selected the 100 channels from more than 500 pitches. Some of their picks were intended to target underserved audiences (moms, for example), while others were based on what YouTube knows is already working, including clips about pets, cars and comedy.
Mr. Robbins, the Awesomeness TV executive, has helped launch a parade of young talent on shows like Nickelodeon’s “All That,” and is a close observer of the media habits of his two teen sons. (Their obsession with pro wrestling—the only TV shows they watch live, he says—sparked the idea for a teen wrestling league.)
During a recent development meeting, Mr. Robbins dispatched a video crew to London to follow an up-and-coming band, Mindless Behavior, and discussed how to corral stars for interviews at the coming NBA all-star game in Orlando, Fla. He encouraged negotiations with the father of twin 14-year-old skateboarders who could potentially anchor their own show.
Discussion turned to the casting of hosts for the teen roundtable modeled on “The View.” Talk-show experience was not a prerequisite. Of one 16-year-old candidate, Mr. Robbins asked, “Is she a YouTube girl or a Twitter girl?”
“Both—90,000 subscribers on YouTube, 43,000 followers on Twitter,” said his assistant, Alex Davis.
“Let’s set up a Skype call with her,” Mr. Robbins said.
Write to John Jurgensen at email@example.com
When the Mouse Is Your Remote: Five Web Shows to Watch Now
courtesy of HuluA scene from ‘Battleground’
Shot in the same faux documentary style as “The Office,” this low-key comedy follows the young campaign staff of a Senate candidate in Wisconsin. Originated as a TV script, the weekly 13-episode series nods to its adapted medium when a character introduces the camera crew shooting footage “for some Internet thing.”
“Sopranos” alumnus Steven Van Zandt dons thick sweaters and puffy boots for this series about a mobster in witness protection in Norway. Much of the dialogue is subtitled and the show has been a hit on television in Norway, where it was developed. Netflix, which acquired the rights, recently released all eight 45-minute episodes at once for subscribers. www.netflix.com (subscription required)
Yahoo!A scene from ‘Failure Club’
‘Failure Club,’ Yahoo
This series, from documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, is about real people pursuing long-shot ambitions. It’s part of Yahoo’s courtship of high-profile producers, including Tom Hanks. But Mr. Spurlock’s series gets a fraction of the views garnered by other Yahoo originals about celebrity gossip.
The performing arts were slower to join the online video boom, but that’s changing with ventures like Hibrow, launched last month. Staged readings of short plays commissioned by Dominic Hill, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, were shot with multiple cameras. Writer David Eldridge’s “All is Vanity” turns on a get-together between two tense (and foul-mouthed) married couples.
Since the launch of Sony’s Crackle in 2007, the site for free TV shows and movies has experimented with originals. Aimed squarely at young men, episodes of this comedy about two absurd schemers are introduced by stars like Jon Hamm. In one video he intones, “Conflict, character, emotional drive. This really had none of that, but I did like the part with the slapping.”